The reason jerky even came about was to solve a problem of keeping a protein source edible for long periods of time when food was not available.
Dehydrating meat removes moisture within the meat so that bacterial or fungal enzymes cannot react with the meat which in turn preserves it from spoiling. This extends the beef jerky shelf life so it can be stored for a longer period of time.
What started as a Native American process of preserving meat for necessity has evolved into great tasting snack food.
How Long Does Beef Jerky stay good for?
One of the top questions that I always am asked is "how long does jerky stay good for?"
If you follow the steps below, you can expect your homemade jerky to last 1-2 months after initial airtight packaging. When stored in ziplock bags in a dark pantry, jerky will last about 1 week. In a refrigerator, jerky will last 1-2 weeks.
How to Make Beef Jerky Last Longer
Let's take a look at what impacts the shelf life of beef jerky and steps you can take to lengthen that time.
1. Lean Meat -
Fat is the enemy when it comes to making jerky. Fat will spoil fast and make the jerky go rancid quicker than it would if there wasn't fat. Purchase lean meat and trim all visible fat before drying.
2. Curing Salt -
Most commercial producers use a salt cure consisting of sodium nitrite to extend the life of their jerky to 1 year. This prevents bacteria that could survive in meat if exposed to oxygen.
It is not a requirement to use a cure and most homemade recipes do not include one. This is why you will heat homemade jerky to 160° F and use table salt, sea salt, or pickling salt, helping your beef jerky to stay bacteria free without a curing salt.
If you want to include a cure in your recipe, a popular cure you can purchase at your local supermarket would be Morton® Tender Quick®. I personally use Prague Powder #1 which I purchase online. This includes Sodium Nitrite which will aid in preservation.
When using a cure, you will notice that it gives jerky that red color you often experience from store bought products. It will also alter the taste, giving it that beef jerky flavor everyone is familiar with.
3. Drying -
The longer you dry jerky the longer it will last. However, over drying jerky will result in it being extremely chewy. So dry jerky to a desired texture and concentrate on the storage techniques listed below to lengthen your jerky life.
4. Storage (lack of oxygen) -
One of the main reasons that commercial beef jerky stays good for so long is because they make sure there is no oxygen in their finished product packaging. This is normally done by shooting nitrogen into their packages to flush out the oxygen before inserting the jerky and sealing.
I don't know about you, but I don't have nitrogen laying around the house for jerky making! So here are the best practices you can do when storing your jerky to keep it fresh longer.
- Cool Off - Allow to cool for several hours before storing in airtight containers. -or-
- Paper Bags - Storing for a day or two in a paper bag allows the jerky to expel any existing moisture which will help it last longer. This can be done before storing in an air-tight container or ziplock bag.
- Zip lock bags & Mason Jars - These airtight containers are a great way to store jerky to where they are not exposed to much oxygen. This will extend the life of jerky more than if stored in a paper bag. Just make sure to keep the container out of the sun.
- Oxygen Absorbers - Add food grade oxygen absorbers to your plastic bag or canning jar. Eliminating the oxygen in your package helps prevent bacteria growth, extending the shelf life of your jerky.
- Vacuum Sealers - Use vacuum seal packaging to extract oxygen in order to prevent spoilage. Vacuum sealers can be purchased relatively inexpensive and they work great for storing homemade jerky. If you are a hunter like myself, more than likely you already have vacuum seal bags in your pantry. I use mine all the time for game meat and fish. It really extends the life of your catch.
- Pantry - Store in dark, cool places like a pantry. Do not leave jerky in direct sunlight as this can cause condensation within the bag which could result in mold. A little fogging is okay, but if water droplets appear inside your jerky bag; remove jerky and dehydrate longer. Water droplets lets you know that the jerky was NOT dried long enough.
- Fridge - Storing jerky in a fridge will keep it lasting about a month long. Let it sit at room temperature for 5 minutes to allow it to warm to room temperature before eating. This will allow it to relax a little and not be so hard as it would be cold.
- Freezer - If wanting to keep jerky for longer than 1-2 months, you can freeze it for up to 6 months. Freezing can alter the taste of jerky and I personally don't recommend it. A better practice is to make smaller batches and eat within a month or two, rather than making a big batch and having to much jerky at once.
How Long Does Beef Jerky Last After Opening?
Don't think that an opened jerky container will continue to be good to eat for a month. Once exposed to air, jerky should be eaten fairly quickly.
Commercial Store-bought beef jerky
If you open an airtight bag of jerky, you will want to consume it within 3-5 days. Even though store bought jerky can last 1 year, most store-bought jerky bags will state "eat within 3 days after opening".
This is due to the fact that after opening the jerky is now exposed to air and the potential to grow bacteria. Also make sure to check the expiration date or best-by date on the package. If it's beyond this date, do not eat the jerky.
Homemade Beef Jerky
Jerky you make yourself and stored in a vacuum sealed package, after opening you will want to eat the jerky in 3-5 days as well. Keeping in the fridge after opening will extend this to 1 week.
Signs of Spoilage
There is one main way to tell whether beef jerky has gone bad. This is MOLD. If you begin to see mold on jerky, it has gone bad and should NOT be eaten.
Mold will appear as a white fuzzy substance growing on the outside of a piece of jerky. If you see this, discard of the entire bag of jerky. If you piece has mold, it's a good sign that all the jerky in the bag is not safe to eat and could cause food poisoning.
For more information, visit the USDA Webpage on Jerky and Food Safety.